In recent years, the population of Chiang Mai has grown very quickly, and the city is now one of Thailand's largest, with a population of more than 1,500,000. Growth has brought with it concerns about air pollution and rush-hour traffic, though these are not nearly as bad as in Bangkok. Other problems have occurred as a result of the influx of tourists. These include deforestation and the displacement of tribal people in nearby hills and valleys to make way for resorts and roads. Despite all this, Chiang Mai retains a magical charm. It is an exciting city with a rich cultural heritage offering numerous sights and activities for the visitor.
Some major attractions include historical and religious buildings, bustling markets, nature parks, and stores selling an incredible variety of handcrafted products. Chiang Mai is much smaller than Bangkok and, even if you are unfamiliar with maps, it is fairly easy to find your way around. Perhaps the best place to start is the old city. This central part of Chiang Mai is contained within four walls and a moat, originally built for defense. The walls date back to the city's founding in the 13th Century but were rebuilt in the 19th Century. Several of the original gates in the wall have also been restored and serve as useful reference points to help you find your way around. Particularly interesting is the busy Tha Pae Gate. Around this area lies a plethora of restaurants including The Easy Diner, JJ's Restaurant and Bakery and Ratana's Kitchen. Several small hotels also dot the vicinity (for example Lai-Thai Guesthouse, Roong Ruang Hotel and Gap's House. Within the old city runs a maze of roads. Taking a walk around some of these quiet lanes can be a pleasure in itself. You will come across Chiang Mai's most interesting temples, starting with Wat Pan On, which stands close to Tha Pae Gate. Farther into the old city you will find others, including Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man.
The western side of the old city reaches out toward Doi Suthep Mountain and the beautiful white chedis (spires) of Wat Suan Dok. Further on is another beautiful temple, Wat Umong. From the northwest of the city, Huay Keaw Road leads to the top of Doi Suthep mountain. Along this road are Kad Suan Keaw, a popular shopping mall and the sprawling Chiang Mai Zoo. If you come here, be prepared to do a lot of walking, or hire a driver to take you round, as the grounds are very large. Further out is Huay Keaw Waterfall and, at the end of the road, proudly sitting on top of the mountain, is the revered Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep, an elegant temple looking down over the city of Chiang Mai.
Along the road to San Kampaeng (Route 101), handicraft stores line the road. Bor Sang Umbrella Village provides a great place to buy locally produced souvenirs, particularly umbrellas. Beyond Bor Sang lies San Kampaeng, a small market town, and San Kampaeng Hot Springs a great place for a soak. The countryside around here is beautiful and unspoiled, so do bring a camera!
Outside the City
Other attractions beyond the city limits include hiking and white water rafting as well as incredible natural scenery, such as the awesome Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand. Many trips outside Chiang Mai can be arranged independently as plenty of buses serve the provinces. Alternatively, book yourself an organized tour. These range from one-day trips around the city to longer excursions incorporating activities such as rafting, hiking or exploring hill tribe villages. 3rd Eye Travel, Trekking Collective Company and Chiang Mai in Action are just three tour agencies that can help you plan your itinerary. An exciting way to get an alternative perspective is from the air. This expensive yet unforgettable option can be arranged by Chiang Mai Sky Adventure.
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